The scorched-earth offensive
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Haldia in West Bengal, February 7 (Photo: Getty Images)
BACK IN NOVEMBER 2014, AHEAD OF THE 2015 Kolkata Municipal Corporation polls, Amit Shah urged a massive rally to remove Mamata Banerjee from power in the 2016 Assembly elections. “Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha victory march will culminate with BJP’s victory in the Assembly polls scheduled for 2016. It is Modiji’s slogan to make West Bengal free of the TMC regime. After the victory in the Lok Sabha polls, BJP has won in Haryana and Maharashtra. The party will also win in Jharkhand, J&K, Bihar and Delhi. But the victory of BJP and Narendra Modi will be complete only after it forms the government in Bengal,” Shah thundered, announcing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Mission 2016 in a state where, between them, the Left parties and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) had towered over politics for more than four decades.
It was a plan beyond the wildly ambitious. The civic polls were expected to sound the bugle for BJP in the state, where it had virtually no political presence, for the 2016 Assembly elections. But it was spelt out by Shah, an organisational man at the helm who believed in assiduous planning and persistent application and who was not just Modi’s closest confidant and a hands-on field general but, at the time, a general secretary of his party for the critical political battleground state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) from where he took time out for West Bengal. The man Modi entrusted with delivering UP for the party that year did a daring daylight heist of 73 of 80 seats that boosted BJP’s overall tally to 280 seats in Lok Sabha. Until then, the party’s rakings had peaked at 57 of 85 seats in 1998, in an as yet undivided state. That victory in 2014 was built from the ground up with painstaking effort by Shah, cleverly manipulating the state’s caste dynamics and proactively involving OBC and SC candidates (25 and 17 candidates respectively) in a state with the highest Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) population in the country. That is a strategy that BJP is looking to replicate in the current situation in West Bengal, the state with the second highest SC/ST population.
In a modest-sized auditorium on the outskirts of Kolkata in 2014, Shah told assembled party workers that there was an urgent need to create a database of activists, sympathisers and those who could be persuaded to back BJP. “We don’t just need names. We need their addresses and coordinates including phone numbers so that we can reach them. And we have to win the 2021 state polls.” Coming when it did, even a diehard BJP supporter would have found this assertion driven by wishful thinking rather than being anything remotely achievable. Shah himself had confessed in the run-up to the 2014 elections that in the southern and eastern parts of the country, BJP suffered from big organisational weaknesses, describing this as a “very real problem”. But adverse, even a patently hostile geography or demography, has failed to deter him or the party. The key concern was to impress BJP’s footprint in West Bengal and, irrespective of wins, notch up vote percentage steadily, if slowly.
And the party achieved its goals in 2019, raking in 18 seats from the state. The growth was a steady profile of its vote share increase, mainly at the cost of Left parties, from 17.3 per cent in 2014 to 39.5 per cent in 2019. In the same period, TMC only managed to raise its vote share from 43 per cent to 46 per cent. On the other hand, the Left’s vote share plummeted from 42 per cent in 2009 to a shocking 8.8 per cent. BJP had completely upstaged the Left by 2019. Under Shah’s baton, it had not only significantly eaten into the Left’s vote share but had consolidated these gains and even gnawed at TMC’s vote share, especially in the hill region, in Jangalmahal and in northern Bengal.
In Assam, BJP’s performance in the state’s 126-member Assembly is likely to be more than satisfactory, despite its parting of ways with the Bodo People’s Front (BPF). Analysts have projected BJP’s return to power as a foregone conclusion, notwithstanding Congress apparently putting up a fight. At a rally in end-February, Shah attacked Congress for allying with Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) solely due to its “lust for power” and asserted that BJP, along with ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), would foil their plans and come back to power in the state. AIUDF is known to carry much political heft among the Bengali-speaking Assamese Muslims, a sizeable portion of the voters in the state, but any truck with the party was opposed by Tarun Gogoi when he was chief minister. In an already communally polarised state, the party will go to the hustings on the strength of work on the ground done by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and the Modi Government at the Centre over the last seven years. To its advantage, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state finance minister, has proved a big asset for the party, strengthening its organisation on the ground and the furthering of its Hindutva agenda not just in Assam but in the Northeast as a whole.
Sarma has played a key role in blunting the disaffection about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). This, by leveraging the fundamental difference between the state’s opposition to granting citizenship to anyone who settled in Assam post-1971 and the opposition to the same in the rest of the country where the CAA and NRC are perceived as targeting Muslims. In the Bodoland region, on Amit Shah’s watch, January 2020 saw the accord between the Union Government and the leaders of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU)—who later joined the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL)—besides all four factions of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB). In lieu of recanting on the demand for separate statehood, the accord increased the area under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and offered greater autonomy. Nor is the BJP leadership losing much sleep over the separation from BPF. Hagrama Mohilary has openly batted for Sonowal as chief minister and is seen as hostile to Sarma. From BJP’s perspective, Sarma, a Brahmin, is seen as not fitting into the current electoral caste dynamic seamlessly and, more importantly, as too big an asset for his talents to be restricted only to the Northeast.
In the south, the other region where Shah had in 2014 confessed that BJP suffered organisationally, the party, thus far in power only in Karnataka, is placed far more comfortably than projected seven years ago. In the Union Territory (UT) of Puducherry, where the Congress government of Velu Narayanasamy collapsed just weeks before the Assembly elections under intra-party and alliance contradictions and poor handling of relief work after natural disasters, BJP is set to capture power for the first time in the 30-member Assembly. It may only be a UT, but the size of Tripura did not prevent the Left Front from claiming that it controlled three states of the Union when it was in power only in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.
KANSHI RAM ONCE said that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) contested first to lose, then to defeat and finally, to win. That should echo the sentiments of BJP, long eyeing an apparently unconquerable Tamil Nadu. With the potentially long-lasting bonding with a powerful Dravidian party, BJP has definitely found a surer foothold in the state to amplify its organisational strength and ideological reach. A big boost to the party’s prospects in its alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) came on the eve of the crucial election, with ‘Chinnamma’ Sasikala, fresh out of prison on bail, announcing her “retirement” from active politics. Appealing to all factions of AIADMK to unite and fight the “scourge” of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), she asserted, in an emotional appeal, that this was her sole objective and that she had no intention to usurp power for herself. Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) has made this election about himself versus veteran DMK leader MK Stalin, K Karunanidhi’s anointed political heir, with the entire AIADMK alliance riding on his reputation. His handling of the lockdown is viewed favourably by the public as are his sops. Just minutes before the Assembly session ended and the model code of conduct kicked in, EPS rushed through a crucial 10.5 per cent reservation to Vanniyars within the 20 per cent Most Backward Classes (MBC) quota to placate ally Paattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). That’s expected to pay good electoral dividends.
In Assam, BJP’s performance is likely to be more than satisfactory. But it is West Bengal that remains the party’s main battlefield in these elections as it seeks a complete political dominance of the east under Amit Shah
Earlier, EPS had announced round-the-clock electricity for farm pumps. In a state firmly opposed to the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), the chief minister announced in March 2020 that his government was planning to enact a law to create a special quota in medical colleges for students who studied from Classes 1 to 12 in government schools. The move was welcomed by hundreds of government school students and their parents. Given the plethora of popular schemes announced by his government, the elections are unlikely to be a cakewalk for the DMK-Congress-Left-Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) alliance and, more particularly, for Stalin who is leading DMK to battle by himself for the first time in the absence of his father. Besides, new parties like Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam are set to eat into DMK’s vote share, however minimally. DMK has been in the wilderness for a decade already and not winning decisively will cast a shadow on Stalin’s leadership abilities. For AIADMK and EPS, too, there is much riding on a victory. Losing badly would likely expose the party to a split and debilitate it. Either way, the elections are BJP’s to gain long-term advantage from, especially in expanding its footprint in Tamil Nadu.
But it is West Bengal that remains BJP’s main battlefield in these elections as it forges ahead for a complete political dominance of the east under Amit Shah. Just how much store the party has set by the state is evident in the barrage of bigwigs in the campaign ramming Mamata Banerjee’s fortress, drawing from the Centre and even its chief ministers from other states, such as Yogi Adityanath and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Both Shah and party chief JP Nadda have been practically bombarding voters with public rallies. In the run-up to the eight-phase voting in the state, BJP has planned a mammoth 800 rallies. Prime Minister Modi will be addressing 20 of these, and Shah and Nadda 50 rallies each, in a showdown in which BJP is using its most powerful ammunition against the ruling TMC by a strategy that has aimed at consolidating the gains made at the expense of a rapidly atrophying Left Front and is now eating into Banerjee’s own vote bank.
It is a formidable plan of action with attention to detail in which Shah has borrowed heavily from the UP election win—based on leveraging the state’s heavy reliance on caste dynamics—which he is credited with singlehandedly crafting. The big chink in the political armour of the Left Front—which dominated Bengal politics for decades before the arrival of TMC—that BJP seeks to now use to peak advantage was its denial of caste as a potent socio-electoral factor while ostensibly subscribing to a class-centred ideology. What is helping BJP is the churning and emerging caste-based identity and political consciousness, in a state with the second highest SC/ST population, in tandem with the shrinking of the Left and the rise of TMC to power in the last decade. Despite its lip service to egalitarianism, the first generation of Left leaders were drawn from the upper castes and upper class—the Bhadralok were the guiding influence in Left politics and policies, stampeding the masses into voting for ‘PLU’ leaders. This was a class wallowing in its own exceptionalism—its activism stopped at censuring people, ostracising, thought-shaming anyone with a dissenting viewpoint and stifling questioning voices. This was cancel culture at work. For all the overt celebration of subaltern studies and perspectives, such people were mostly regarded as bereft of any revolutionary consciousness. Their energy, angst and rage were routinely harnessed for the ideological asphyxiation of the party’s designated enemies. This was an amorphous category and often included fellow comrades from CPM’s allied parties, such as CPI, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Bloc. The mindset was faithfully transmitted to later generations of Bhadralok leaders of CPM. For the leadership of a party that claimed to being progressive—CPM’s Bhadralok would not spare an opportunity to swear by Rabindranath Tagore’s internationalism—they were quite provincial in their outlook and tried to fortify it against the changes that swept across the rest of India. They managed to impose their idea of secularism and social contracts and, in the process, Bengal was reduced to a Party State. Such was the hegemony that even the mere mention of cultural or religious icons and beliefs was frowned upon.
It is here that BJP found an opening to posit the subaltern centrestage and the Matuas (Namasudras) became part of that strategy. SCs account for 1.8 crore of the total population, with Namasudras alone making up around 17.5 per cent of that figure. This powerful group of SCs, mostly lower-caste Bengali-speaking Hindus, is the most literate among Bengal’s SCs (over 80 per cent) and the least reliant on agriculture (about 40 per cent) when compared to the Rajbanshis, Bagdi, Pod, Bauri and Chamar. Yet, the Left did not see it fit to give them political recognition. Mamata Banerjee’s own relationship with them has been proactive, however, and it is in seeking to break her hold on the community that Modi sought blessings from ‘Boroma’ Binapani Devi of the Matua community during the Lok Sabha campaign. Her grandson, Shantanu Thakur, won from the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat subsequently and BJP struck gold, winning the seat for the first time. In all, the state has 10 reserved seats and BJP wrested four of these in 2019.
TRIBAL VOTERS OF PURULIA and Bankura—their culture is steeped in the worship of Rama and Krishna and they form part of the Ramayana-Krishna Lila belt—were also relegated to the fringes. The Tribal population in the state is 52,96,963 (as per Census 2011), which is about 5.8 per cent of the total population of the state. Mostly marginalised in the Left political consciousness, as were Bengalis of northern Indian origin who account for a good 20 per cent, they were also cannon fodder for the non-BJP parties. The pressure was on them to assimilate into the dominant Bhadralok ethos. BJP has worked on these marginalised groups increasingly uneasy about the way their culture and heritage were devalued as well as about the appeasement of Muslims.
Despite her hold on communities like the Namasudras, Banerjee finds herself unable to stop the onslaught of the BJP juggernaut and its aggressive wooing of SCs, STs and other sidelined communities in her state, primarily since her focus is on competing with the Left-Congress-ISF front from the perspective of both Muslim appeasement and the Bhadralok worldview.
This is mostly in order to shore up her vote bank and ensure their sustained support. BJP, meanwhile, has been pursuing its objective of wooing the marginalised groups. Its key focus has been the sense of cultural identity of these predominantly Hindu groups smothered by successive regimes in the state. The result—BJP today has a formidable vote base that has been weaponised as the most powerful challenger to the ruling TMC, brushing aside the Left-led alliance.
Absolute victory or not, the BJP leadership—a phalanx of star campaigners headed by Modi, Shah, Nadda, several Union ministers and BJP chief ministers, besides key allies and local leaders, including powerful regional potentates who switched sides in Bengal from the ruling TMC like Suvendu Adhikari—has invested heavily in this Assembly election. They have unleashed a high-voltage campaign, but only after several months of targeted work on the ground to knit together a quilt of the politically and culturally disenfranchised, and carved out a strident narrative for the party across states despite challenging demographics and electoral dynamics.
Where they are not fighting to win, they are building a longer-term future to boost their vote share to defeat arch rivals or dent their hold on the electorate. Amit Shah has crafted an aggressive ‘take no prisoners’ election strategy. The architecture of BJP’s scorched-earth policy is designed to reap big long-term political dividends.